Though he denies it, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has gambled the club’s season on the outcome of Wednesday’s Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm.
Having missed out on Champions League qualification via the Premier League, United must beat Ajax at the Friends Arena to secure a return to Europe’s elite competition.
Mourinho has made his priorities clear in recent weeks by resting players for league fixtures, but he claims United’s injury problems left him with no choice.
“It was not a gamble. It was a simple decision,” said Mourinho, who picked a team with an average age of 22 years and 284 days for Sunday’s season-ending 2-0 home win over Crystal Palace.
“When we lost players in a period of 17 matches in seven weeks, it was the impossible job. It was not a gamble, just a consequence of our situation.”
Mourinho won the Uefa Cup, as the Europa League was previously known, with Porto in 2003, but the two-time Champions League winner has been publicly dismissive of the competition in recent years.
Upon returning to Chelsea in 2013, Mourinho said of the tournament, which the London club had won the previous season: “I don’t want to win the Europa League. It would be a big disappointment for me.”
United’s performances during this season’s tournament suggest their players were not sure how much they wanted to win it either.
They lost their first two away games, against Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, needed extra time to beat Anderlecht in the quarterfinals and were given a scare by Celta Vigo in the semifinals.
Now that the trophy is within touching distance, Mourinho has started to paint the tournament in a different light.
He has already masterminded a League Cup success and has suggested Europa League glory would mean United have had a more successful season than trophy-less top-four rivals like Manchester City and Liverpool.
In the words of defender Phil Jones: “People will say we’ve not had a good season, but would you rather finish second and win nothing or win two cups and be in the Champions League?”